Several years ago, the first time I uttered the words, “I am gay,” something inside of me felt strangely liberated. Those words had always seemed so terribly dangerous—after all, someone couldn’t be both gay and Mormon. But I felt I didn’t have any other choice. The box of cultural and religious beliefs I had forced myself into was suffocating me, both spiritually and emotionally. The beliefs I had about what a Latter-day Saint “should” be—or, as I perceived a good, acceptable, and worthy Church member should be—felt completely beyond my grasp. I had tried. And everything seemed to be great until I got home from my mission. Then, I hit a wall. Dating was fun, but the effort it seemed to take to muster up any image of life with the girls I found myself admiring—more for their character and spiritual qualities—was exhausting and discouraging. Particularly when the caliber of girls I dated was precisely what I knew I would want in an eternal companion. What more could I possibly do? With creeping doubts about the possibility of marriage to someone of the opposite sex, would I really be able to live single and alone my entire life?
While my new identity was liberating for a time, there came a point when even it began to feel suffocating. Probably naturally so, since all I had done was trade one set of cultural assumptions and expectations for another. But culture seems to be a given part of life, and we are influenced—whether we want to admit it or not—by the expectations and choice patterns of those we choose to associate ourselves with. (As much as I tried to resist it, I didn’t live in Texas long before a “y’all” regrettably escaped my lips. I was overpowered. Now, I no longer try to fight it.) As strong as an influencing force Mormon culture tends to be, cultural expectation within gay community can be just as powerful. As I explored what it might mean to be a gay Mormon, finding that many gay-identified individuals of a Mormon background had strayed farther from the Church and its teachings than I felt I could ever do, I struggled with the tension between my desire to maintain my faith and testimony and the relief I felt associating with others who understood the attractions I felt and, in some instances, the exhilaration of mutual attraction, something that had previously been completely foreign. I didn’t want to abandon my faith, but I also couldn’t bear the thought of going back to quietly maintaining an image that strangled my soul. And, I didn’t want to be alone. A seemingly irreconcilable war raged in my soul.
Just as I started to lose all desire to remain in the Church, some Spiritual experiences, by the grace of God, reclaimed my heart. I wasn’t quite ready to give up my identity as a gay man, but I was willing to give my heart to trying to live the gospel to the best of my ability, even if that meant I might never marry in this life. That ambiguity was something I was willing to lay on the altar, trusting the Lord that all things would work out in the end, whatever that might look like.
As I’ve tried to turn my heart to the Lord, I’ve felt as thought He’s been teaching me some important truths about faith, discipleship, and my eternal identity. Each of us is, at least in part, a product of our time, place, and culture. Those who live or are raised in a certain area tend to think that the way things are done there are the way they are done–or, at least, should be done–everywhere. But, through education, travel, experience, etc, we transcend the limitations of prior perceptions and perspectives. The more we are able to see and experience in the world, the more the paradigms through which we view life and the world expand. After having lived and studied in, or traveled to, several different countries and cultures, the way I now see the world, myself, and others, is very different than when I was a child. But, while there’s a nearly infinite scope of knowledge to explore in the world, it is still limited. It’s still very much “this world.” The only way to transcend the mortal myopia to which we are all victim on some level, is through the power of God and of spiritual connection to something eternal—something bigger than this sphere of existence.
My understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is a power of transcendence. Not only do we, through Christ’s gift of Atonement, transcend physical death, but as we attune our hearts and minds to the Spirit of the Lord, God helps us to see “things as they really are, and…as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13). Only through the power of God can we transcend the limits of mortal upbringing, conditioning, or culture. Only as we connect and commune with the Father are the eternities opened to our view. Only as we sanctify our hearts and turn to Him in faith can He heal our mortal blindness, giving us eyes to see and ears to hear. While we may always be subject in some degree to the limitations of life in a fallen world, it is only through this Divine connection and communion that we can truly experience the power of transcendence.
After the initial Spiritual, reconverting experiences I had after my crisis of faith, the more I continued to grow in the gospel, the more shallow my continued identification as gay felt. And yet, the concept of “straight” felt just as shallow. I didn’t want to be “straight” any more than I wanted to be “gay.” I wanted to be me. I wanted simply to experience the transformation that comes through the power of Christ’s atonement, whatever that looked like on the other side. I wanted only to understand and embrace my identity as an eternal son of an eternal Father with an eternal birthright.
Identity is a powerful force in human experience. It’s natural to embrace and connect to things that offer us a sense of identity, meaning, or belonging, be it family, ethnic/cultural heritage, political philosophy, popular cultural divisions, etc. These things give our lives a sense of meaning and belonging and perhaps even a story that helps us to make sense out of the complexities of mortality. But I believe the call to Christ is a call to transcend all things mortal and temporary, all that “moth and rust doth corrupt” (Matthew 6:19).
It’s my sense that those who have the most difficult time seeing beyond the temporary divisions and circumstances of mortality, and of either shedding labels or at least allowing them more than superficial meaning, are those who have been unable to really connecting to their identity as a son or daughter of God—and to experience that identity as “enough.” “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” the proverbist declared (Prov. 29:18). If it’s not enough, because individuals haven’t had a converting spiritual witness, or because their spiritual roots haven’t sunk deep enough, they will cling fiercely to other labels or forms of socio-cultural identity that offer meaning and belonging. It may be artificial, sure, but at least it gives them something. Only as they experience deeper connection to the Spirit of eternity and to their eternal identity as God’s children, and the power of His blessings and promises, are they able to more safely let go of these more shallow identities.
I believe that this Christian call to transcendence includes the transcendence of even a positively influencing religious culture. Someone may be raised in Mormon community and have rich Latter-day Saint pedigree or pioneer ancestry, but he or she doesn’t become a Latter-day Saint until his or her own heart begins to truly turn to the Lord, experiencing for him- or herself the sanctifying and soul-expanding power of the Spirit. The Church of Jesus Christ is the divinely organized vehicle for the promotion of Christ’s gospel, but it is the gospel itself that is the power of Christ unto life and salvation. While I find my heart deeply rooted in Latter-day Saint community, I find meaning in that community and identity only insomuch as I feel the Lord’s hand in the building of His kingdom. Church membership and community participation is, itself, empty if not experienced as a means to the greater end of communion with Christ and the Father. As Joseph Smith taught, “Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half — that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost.”
President Joseph Fielding Smith commented on this idea, saying, “It is my judgment that there are many members of this Church who have been baptized for the remission of their sins, who have had hands laid upon their heads for the gift of the Holy Ghost, who have never received that gift, that is the manifestations of it. Why? Because they have never humbled themselves. They have never taken the steps that would prepare them for the companionship of the Holy Ghost” (CR, Oct 1958, p. 21).
Brigham Young also lamented that there weren’t enough members of the Church who were willing to truly commit their hearts to the things of the gospel. “I have frequently said, and say again,” he declared, “that there are and always have been a great many in this Church that are not Saints. There are more ‘Mormons’ than Saints; and there are different degrees and grades of ‘Mormons’ and of Saints… and so it will be until Jesus comes to separate the sheep from the goats; or, in other language, until the Husbandman shall bid his servants gather the wheat into the barn, and the tares into bundles to be burned. This must be; this we all believe and understand” (JD, 6:193-94).
In the temple, that place closest to heaven on earth, when are all dressed in white, there are, metaphorically speaking, no more divisions. There are no more Democrats, no more Republicans. No Americans, Hispanics, Europeans, Africans, or Asians. There are no gays or straights, homosexuals or heterosexuals. There are only men and women, covenant heirs of eternal promises. It is my hope that as each of us nurture testimonies of the eternal gospel, such that we are doing more than merely connecting doctrinal dots, but rather sinking our spiritual roots deep into the fertile soil of eternal self-understanding, we will transcend these superficial limitations fully in our hearts as well. For me, in my heart of hearts, there is no “gay,” no “straight,” and no “Mormon.” The only label I want to carry is Saint, son of God.